I have a very strong feeling that those who didn’t grow up obsessed with Jurassic Park, Jaws, and similar films that Gareth Edwards is paying clear homage to in his new take on the Godzilla mythology are going to walk away from this movie incredibly disappointed (a.k.a. almost everyone under the age of 25, if not 30). I, on the other hand, am not disappointed, as you might be realizing right now as I come out of “retirement” to bring you this review.
Edwards, who brought us the underrated, low-budget gem Monsters, treats this story very, very seriously. There aren’t unnecessary action beats, there aren’t long, bright, steady shots of the monsters at hand just to get a few extra money shots for the trailers, and there definitely isn’t any hurry to give away all of the mayhem that makes this movie so incredibly memorable. In interviews, Edwards was quoted as saying that “Jurassic Park only has 30 effects shots in it and it’s one of the classics.” In other words, we finally have a director behind one of these big event movies that understands that teasing the audience a bit, building up suspense and intrigue little by little, and making them believe they’re prepared for what’s to come is part of the fun. As delightful as some recent monster films have been, they all play their hand too early, giving you too much action in the first act and desensitizing you to the point that the climaxes feel like more of the same.
Godzilla begins 15 years ago in Japan, when Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody loses his wife to a freak “accident” at a nuclear power facility, an event that completely upends the life of not just himself, but also his young son, Ford. Cut to the present and Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is returning home from a military tour as an EOD technician, and Joe is still in Japan, trying to piece together what it is that happened to his wife and why he believes it is being covered up. After word comes to Ford, spending his first night at home with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and young son, that his father has been arrested for trespassing on the old nuclear site, he must fly back overseas in an attempt to speak some words of wisdom to his father and bring him home to the States. Instead, Ford gets pulled into the mystery right along with Joe when they realize the quarantined area is not contaminated and an organization by the name of Monarch, led by Ken Watanabe’s excellent (but underused) Dr. Serizawa, is hiding something out there. That something turns out to be a MUTO, or “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism.” After this MUTO breaks out, killing dozens and tearing apart everything in sight, the movie really gets into motion.
The villainous monster is seen only briefly after that until it strikes again in Hawaii, which, of course, just happens to be where Ford is currently waiting as he tries to get home to his family. This leads to the first appearance of the big guy himself, the newly redesigned (and absolutely breathtaking) Godzilla. Dr. Serizawa has a theory that ‘Zilla is nature’s way of putting things back in balance, and his appearance seems to indicate that he doesn’t like having this MUTO around.
After the brief conflict in Hawaii, Ford ends up on a Navy ship with Serizawa and the military officials in command as they discover that there’s another, bigger, female MUTO near Las Vegas and that it wants to meet up with the smaller male for, presumably, reproductive purposes. The military doesn’t like this. Thankfully, neither does Godzilla. The movie slows back down to its earlier pace post-Hawaii, which I thought was a very smart decision. Edwards had given you enough action to keep you in your seat, but not so much as to render following conflicts boring. It was during this stretch, though, that some of the movie’s flaws (there are a few, I’m sad to say) started to show up.
The biggest problem, honestly, is that the script by Max Borenstein feels like it could have used another pass or two. It’s never hard to follow – we always know why which characters are where they are and what their motivations are – but it never bothers to give many details about the people we’re supposed to be following. The script expects us to root for Ford because A) he has a wife and young child and B) he’s on screen the most. Now, this wouldn’t have been noticeable in a faster paced, more action-filled film. When Gareth Edwards has gone out of his way to emphasize that the slow burn pace was part of his goal, though, it does become a problem. A lot of plot points that are stretched out over 30 minutes could have been done in 10 if they weren’t going to be given any more detail. It never really drags, it just feels like its biding time. The next biggest problem, and it is a much smaller one, is that several strong performers are essentially wasted. Ken Watanabe only shows up to give us more info on the monsters and why they’re acting the way they are. Elizabeth Olsen shows up to remind us that Ford has something to lose and also to give us a second point of view from the ground when the third act finally gets into motion.
The fact of the matter, I’m glad to say, is that the third act is truly spectacular renders all complaints absolutely moot. It’s shockingly engrossing, bigger than expected (and I think we all expected BIG after the brilliant marketing campaign), and it has you rooting for Godzilla more strongly than ever before as he fights to stop the MUTO creatures and restore the natural order of things. As Dr. Serizawa says, nature isn’t in our control, and the third act is a fist-pumping, stand-up-and-cheer display of that notion. Godzilla is massively entertaining to watch move in this movie, as he is the biggest he’s ever been, more capable of showing a range of emotions through the brilliant face design, and has far more than one trick up his sleeve to put to use in the lengthy, brutal fight with the dual MUTOs. As Guillermo del Toro so joyously demonstrated last year with Pacific Rim, rooting for these giant, powerful beings and seeing them spar with one another is what the kaiju genre is all about, and you will absolutely want to clap (or shout “daaaaaamn” as the elderly man to my left did) when Godzilla delivers his stunning final blow.
You’ll see a lot of flack thrown Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s way for his performance being “wooden,” but I don’t believe that’s the case. He’s not given a lot to do other than fight to survive, and dialogue becomes very sparse throughout the final act. Him being there on the ground while these creatures duke it out is what lets the audience experience the action up close and personal, so it’s just another case of the script needing some further work to up the stakes a bit. Alexandre Desplat’s score is fun, old-school, and accents each crushing blow from Godzilla or the MUTOs. However, it isn’t particularly memorable. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is often gorgeous and allows for the action at the end to play out in clear view, and that’s really all that was needed here – yet another smart call by Edwards. If you catch this in a theater with good projection and a nice Dolby sound system, you’re going to be grinning from ear to ear. The CG work is incredibly detailed and the sound design is phenomenal, never losing the dialogue but pushing the action scenes to huge levels, allowing you to believe you’re right in the middle of the city as it collapses in every direction around you.
Overall, this is exactly the movie I was hoping it would be. I’m a bit saddened by the script’s lack of depth and polish, but it never cheats to set extra fights or scares up and it’s easy to follow from beginning to end. Many will question Edwards for holding everything but fleeting glimpses back until the climax, but it is a nice reminder of how much subtlety we’ve lost in blockbuster filmmaking since the heydays of Spielberg. By building the hype up during the first two acts, the movie truly manages to put us into a state of awe when it finally lets loose. Cinema has been missing that. I love this film. I hope you will, too.
Final Rating: 8.5/10
I am so very, very ready for this movie. Click for poster.
The dream’s dead. Go home folks.
A great choice for Batman handling the morons in a great way.
Movies Watched in 2013:
151.) No Country For Old Men, 2007, dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen — 9.5/10
One of the greatest casts ever in terms of across-the-board consistent performances. One of the most terrifying villains ever. One of the greatest endings ever. One of the most heartbreaking, scary, crushing, hopeful, poignant stories ever told (of course thanks to the legendary Cormac McCarthy). Still just the third best film of 2007, though, Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, near-perfect or not.
Movies Watched in 2013:
150.) Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007, dir. by Gore Verbinski — 7/10
Despite the fact that the plot finally does take on a little bit more than the running time could handle (that’s right, I’m saying it’s actually too short to handle everything that’s going on), the third film doesn’t deserve a thirtieth of the hate it takes on the depressingly cynical internet. The effects are mindblowing, Depp was in fine form, Geoffrey Rush again tries to steal the whole thing, and the Maelstrom and subsequent destruction of the delightfully evil Lord Cutler Beckett is, for my money, one of the best twenty minute stretches in blockbuster memory. Yeah, the Calypso stuff takes too much attention away from the far more interesting East India Trading Company vs. Pirates story being told, but more Bill Nighy can’t ever be a bad thing, so it all works out in the end.
Movies Watched in 2013:
149.) Cloverfield, 2008, dir. by Matt Reeves — 6.5/10
After a year of mysteries, Matt Reeves and co-conspirator J.J. Abrams finally revealed the truth behind Cloverfield to the world in January of 2008, and it to this day stands as one of the best theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. The movie is filled with fantastic special effects, some smart usage of the usually poorly-done found footage style, and, though some of the actors have gone on to make names for themselves, it felt “real” enough in that first viewing. It’s strange that this was the first big-budget found footage movie and also the last, but I suppose it makes sense. The only way to do another one would be to do it in a way that’s derivative of this. The Abrams haters will tell you this is a nausea-inducing mess, but, then again, who the hell cares what they think? It will never live up to that first theatrical experience that so many of us fondly remember, but it’s still a pretty killer way to spend 80 minutes.
Maximus. Maximus. Maximus. They call for you. The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor
Can we stop and talk about how ridiculously amazing Joaquin Phoenix is in this movie?